“Hurry up you guys!”
“We’re coming Yuki!”
“Are we going to hunt birds again?”
“Yeah, we are.”
“But we haven’t caught anything yet.”
“I know, that’s why we’re going somewhere else. Look, I even made this sling last night!”
“That’s so cool!”
“Can we have a shot with it too?”
It has been three days since Enbos and Hachirou disembarked from the kobold branch. Yuki, Kaito, Izumi and Shou are venturing outside the kobold encampment and away from the hills. With Enbos’ departure, their gatherings now feel unnatural without a tall, blackly-dressed figure by their side. While each dearly miss their big brother in their own way, Yuki still has his eyes on the horizon.
“Yuki, aren’t we going too far away?”
“Yeah, I-I don’t think we should be this far in the woods. We might even bump into the hunters!”
“Come on everybody, we can’t give up now. Even if we get caught, it’s nowhere near as bad as the scolding Big Bro would give.”
“I guess… I miss him, Yuki.”
“I miss him too, Izumi. We all do. But we can’t keep moping around. Once Enbos and Hachi comes back, I want to show them how much we’ve grown, and next time they leave we’ll be going with them!”
“D-do you really think so?”
“I know so! Big Bro Hachi said so himself before he left. So before they come back, I want to be a kobold who can pull his own weight!”
Feeling inspired by Yuki’s words, the four proceed deeper into the forest of hunters.
“Humph…! Oh, I missed again!”
“That was so close.”
“Is it my turn yet?”
“Yeah it is, but we have to find another bird first.”
After half an hour of amateur hunting, the four kobolds still haven’t caught anything within this small woodland. While Yuki’s sling is certainly better than throwing stones, they’re not accustomed to using it. With each failed attempt, the group of children spread out in a rough line and journey deeper into the foliage in search of more unsuspecting prey.
Carefully navigating his way through the undergrowth, Yuki peeks between the bushes and spots their next mark. The bird seems to be busy eating a few wild berries and Yuki still has possession of the sling. Although it should be Shou’s turn, the temptation proves to be too much.
He wants to get better. He wants to become a hunter like big brother Enbos or even Hayate as soon as possible. Making sure none of his friends are watching, Yuki begins swinging the sling in preparation when…
… a seed falls next to it and scares the bird away.
Oh, that sucks. I was ready to ambush it too. Huh, come to think of it, is there something in that tree…?
Looking about for the cause of the creature’s flight, Yuki’s eyes settle on a leather boot poking out from the canopy. Upon careful observation, he realises it’s a leather clad human armed with a small bow and quiver. He doesn’t seem to notice Yuki as he notches an arrow and prepares to shoot.
I-I didn’t know we were so close to human lands! Is he hunting something as well? I wonder what is he aiming at…
As Yuki traces the bowyer’s line of fire, his blood runs cold at the sight of Izumi’s wandering form. Looking back and forth between the human and his friend, Yuki frantically reconfirms the hunter’s target, hoping to be wrong. The man bears no such hesitation, as he silently draws the bowstring to his ear…
With great haste, Yuki spins the sling and launches it at the surprised hunter. For once, the sling finds its mark as the stone projectile hits the human in the side, and causes him to misfire next to Izumi’s feet.
“Y-yuki! Is that-”
“Run Izumi! Everybody run! Go back to the camp! Find the hunters! Just don’t let him-”
At that moment, a searing sensation travels through Yuki’s back. Looking down, he sees an arrowhead poking from his chest, with a dark patch spreading around his kimono. Recognising the burning feeling as pain, Yuki drops to his knees and lets out a cry of unrestrained fear and anguish. Soon, his tears mix with the blood trickling from his mouth. Izumi watches over Yuki with absolute horror, and is soon joined by the shocked gazes of Kaito and Shou.
“R-run… Pl-please… run…”
Summoning all his strength, Yuki looks up at his crying friends with equally blurry eyes and blurts out those final words. With unfathomable loneliness and sorrow, Yuki watches as Izumi, Kaito and Shou flee with miserable whimpers.
The small, white kobold collapses on his back, and for the first time in his life, he spies the invisible river of life in the open sky. He chokes on the blood building in his throat and the tears flowing from his eyes as feelings of regret and abandonment fill his final moments.
I’m sorry… Big Bro Enbos… I’m sorry I-I won’t be there when… you come back… Please gr-great spirit of the World Stream… when I’m reborn in my next life… l-let me… let me walk with Enbos… all my friends… a-… gain…
As the burning pain slowly becomes a deathly chill, the last thing Yuki sees through his dimming eyes is a tall, blackly-dressed figure watching over him.
“Good job, Mark. You managed to hunt down a kobold.”
“It was a lucky shot, Dario. It managed to hit me with some kind of rock when I tried to shoot the other one.”
“Still, I’m impressed you managed to track two kobolds despite the fact I’m supposed to have the <Hunter> title. You may as well replace me…”
“D-don’t be ridiculous, Dario! Like I said, I was only lucky.”
“I guess. The fact they are wearing shoes also explains-”
“Did you get one Mark, Dario!?”
Following that question, the other members of the party arrive around the small kobold’s body. Dario recounts Mark’s achievement, resulting in several pats on the young archer’s back.
“Good job, Mark! At this rate, we’ll easily claim five bodies.”
“I think we will. I scouted the area and counted three more small kobolds leaving this area. If we follow them back to their den and find their parents, that should make six in total.”
“Heh, I guess we finally got a lucky break. Come to think of it, why are these kobolds fully clothed?”
“Hmmm, I think these kobolds are more evolved than the rest of their kind. It’s not uncommon for bipedal monsters to imitate humans.”
“Still, this is some well tailored clothing, and quite exotic ones at that.”
“Well, the quest did say there was a confirmed Kobold attack. Maybe they pillaged some cargo coming from the Graland Empire… Are you alright there, Mark?”
“Yeah, it’s just a bruise. I didn’t see it clearly but I’m surprised this little fellow threw it with such force. It may have used a skill.”
Thinking about his injury, he instinctively winces in pain as he replays the moment in his head. A thought crosses Mark’s mind that the kobold may have been trying to save the other one, but he instantly dismisses the idea.
“Still, even with a few skills, they’re only D rank monsters. Mark, Dario, Bruno, I want you to follow the tracks and find the kobold den.”
“Got it, boss. I’ll earn my coin and redeem my pride.”
“Loud and clear.”
“You can count on me.”
“Amelia, you’ll be tracing everyone’s positions through their adventurer crests.”
“As for me, I’m going to skin this kobold. Its fur is a rare colour and it’s pelt might be a good material. After all, the quest never asked for the body, only to give proof. I’ll gift whatever it makes back to you, Mark.”
“Thank you, Gavel. I really appreciate this.”
The three adventurers part with their mage and swordsman, leaving their leader in question to draw his hunting knife and make the first cut…
The three pursuers follow the kobolds’ trail for several minutes. With the desperate flight of the three kobolds, the path is clearly marked in the ground and every broken branch. It’s only a matter of time before they find their home, or so the adventurers thought.
“That’s weird? Their tracks suddenly disappeared. Even with a <Sneak> skill, the footprints shouldn’t just stop here. It’s as if they got lifted away.”
“Then what do we do?”
“Well, I guess we can scour the area for another track. We’ll keep searching for another twenty minutes or so, then return to this spot. If any of us goes missing or gets lost, we’ll fetch Amelia to track you down. Sound good?”
“Man, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you this serious before, Dario.”
“That’s because my title is on the line, Bruno! I’ve never been this stumped from tracking D rank creatures up to now. I have to know how a few animals can cover their tracks so well!”
“I-I see. Well, I guess I’ll see you guys later. Stay safe, everyone.”
The trio split up and proceed to explore the surrounding area, but after eight minutes, none of them find a single trace. Mark continues wandering through the woods, approaching the border where the trees stop and the hilly plains begin. As he is about to give up, he spots a single footprint in the soft soil.
“I have to get back and tell the others. I hope Dario won’t obsess over this….”
But before Mark can depart, he suddenly realises that the shoeprint is larger than the ones left by the kobold children. At that moment, a stinging pain inflicts his neck, and with mild agitation Mark reaches out to smack whatever had bitten him. However, the thing in his palm is no insect, as Mark plucks out the object and realises it’s a dart. At that moment, half a dozen armed kobolds suddenly drop from the trees and emerge from the bushes, and surround the lone adventurer with a bow.
“What the… eh…?”
All strength leaves Mark’s legs as the poison from the dart disables his motor functions. Even with blurred vision, Mark can recognise the distinct anger in their eyes as they glare at the killer of one of their own.
“?!ikuY dellik ohw mucs namuh eht siht si oS”
“.gnihtolc sih rednu kcehC .wob a sah eH”
Mark doesn’t know what they’re saying, but utter fear grips his heart as they reach toward his helpless form. He struggles to move his arms, his legs, even his toes in desperation, but surprisingly his captives begin removing his equipment. For a moment, Mark has a naive hope that they’ll leave him be once they’ve robbed him of his gear. However, in the next instant, all colour drains from Mark’s face as he realises they’re checking for the bruise inflicted by their deceased kin.
With renewed rage, one of the kobolds kicks Mark in the abdomen and sends him crashing against a tree. Several ribs break as he is left dumbfounded by the strength displayed by these creatures. There is no questioning that their intelligence and physical prowness puts them well above their assigned rank. As the enraged kobold prepares to beat Mark with his bare hands, one of his companions steps in to restrain him.
“!ekusuoS ,nwod mlaC”
“!igaY eht yb trapa nrot eb ot sevresed eH !ikuY dellik hsart sseltraeh sihT !ihciaD ,em dnahnU”
“.daeh hcnarb eht si …tnemegduj ssap nac ohw eno ylno ehT !yaw ruo ton si sihT”
Upon an ominous and unknown agreement, Mark watches in foreboding silence as they bind him with ropes and lift his feeble form upon their shoulders.
“.yas lliw okoyihC tahw wonk lla eW .tnemhsinup sih gniyaled ni tniop eht ees t’nod I”
An uneasy silence settles between the kobolds, as they carry Mark to what may very well be his final destination. Unable to speak in his paralysed state, all he can do is put his faith in his companions and lament the decisions that led him to such a fate… or such a demise.